An article from earlier in the week by bestselling author and columnist Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker magazine titled "How David Beats Goliath" has been generating a lot of buzz. In it, Gladwell tells a story of how an athletically unskilled basketball team of 12-year old girls went on to beat athletically superior and skilled teams by using a full court press.

I think most non-basketball people would read the article and gain some valuable insight about equalizing talent, how underdogs beat the favorites by thinking outside of the box. Most basketball people, especially coaches would shudder at the prospect of full-court pressing in youth basketball. In fact, I was personally revolted by the article. I like Malcolm Gladwell and I've bought several of his books, but I definitely think he should stick with topics that he understands. The most ironic part of his article is that at the end of it his David doesn't beat Goliath, but falls in defeat during one of their playoff rounds. How fitting...

There is a reason why many youth leagues put in rules against full court pressing. Gladwell scoffs at the idea of players actually learning real basketball skills like shooting, triple-threat, defensive slides, etc.. and believes instead that by teaching them only how to steal the ball on an inbounds over and over again somehow will translate into the greater lesson of a learned "work ethic" -- that his version of "work ethic" can be used to beat more talented teams. In fact, the only unfortunate lesson these young girls have learned is that they wasted a whole season without actually learning a single thing useful from playing basketball.

In all my years of playing, watching, and coaching basketball, there is only one true talent equalizer I know of and that is shooting. Some people are born naturally better than others, but the point is that shooting is something that can be trained through muscle memory. Anybody can become a great shooter through a little guidance, and hours and hours of practice. In this respect, Malcolm Gladwell got it right with his 10,000 hour rule.

My only hope is that nobody gets duped by this article -- that the hundreds of youth coaches out there think that they are doing a great thing by teaching their players a gimmick as a substitute for real coaching, sacrificing player development for a couple of cheap wins. Youth basketball IS about teaching them skills so that they will actually be able to play at a higher level.

7 comments

  1. DA  

    May 17, 2009 at 2:25 PM

    you missed the entire point of the article

  2. bruchu  

    May 17, 2009 at 2:43 PM

    I understand the point of the article, that you don't beat the establishment by being like the establishment.

    But the evidence for his argument is a bad one. Anyone who has played/coached/watched basketball knows that a full-court press in youth basketball is a really bad idea.

    Gladwell obviously knows very little about basketball, otherwise he would not have chosen this father's story as the basis of his argument.

  3. umpeik  

    May 18, 2009 at 8:46 AM

    Very well written article. Gladwell is not a basketball fanatic, but he has obviously done his research. I think you are being hard headed by saying that these girls wasted a whole season without learning anything useful.

    They learned how to win and they obviously worked hard at their particular strategy. Full court press is also exhausting, and you have to be in a much better shape then the other team to be successful at it.

    Maybe they didn't learn the intricacies of basketball, but does that really matter if you are a twelve year old girl who is not going to be playing in the WNBA?

  4. CoachAndy  

    May 18, 2009 at 8:57 AM

    I really don't get it why so many people don't understand that as soon as the opponents of those girls improved their passing and dribbling skills that "full court press-myth" will be gone. As soon as you start to think that Youth Basketball is all about winning you missed the point entirely! Its all about developing skills in "sensitive phases" that are later hard to learn. Using Zone defense or Press defenses at that young age gets you cheap wins because they exploit weaknesses young players do have (outside shooting, long distance passing etc.)

  5. Michael  

    May 18, 2009 at 10:34 AM

    I was on a youth basketball team that used the full-court press, but only selectively, as well as zone defense. It was definitely educational so it is not a complete waste. However, the advantage of it fades as soon as you encounter a team with enough skill to dribble through it and/or pass over it. Even in 6th grade some teams beat our press at times.

    I don't leagues should ban it, though. It's a great way for opposing teams to learn how not to panic and to develop passing and dribbling skills. You can eat a pressing team for lunch with good passing.

  6. Coach  

    May 18, 2009 at 5:33 PM

    I read the article last week. I don't think Gladwell was advocating full court pressing in youth basketball. He was encouraging outside the box thinking.

  7. CoachAndy  

    May 20, 2009 at 9:46 AM

    I know that but he used a bad example. I just don't think Macchiavelism should apply to Youth Basketball.